It’s not often that the defending Southwestern Conference champions aren’t considered a title contender heading into the following season.
After losing a key group of seniors from last year’s 19-4 team, that’s the situation for Avon Lake. The Shoremen graduated a lot of talented players, but they even felt disrespected heading into last season with that team. They’re in a familiar spot and are comfortable with it at that.
“We absolutely love it,” Avon Lake coach Eric Smith said. “To be honest, we were floating under the radar last year. We were picked to finish around fourth in the league last year and that’s fine with us. We’re not worried about other people’s expectations of us, we have our own expectations. We talk every day about playing to the standard.”
Despite losing players including Morning Journal Player of the Year Matthew Stuewe, Isaac Richardson and Collin Stewart, the Shoremen have senior leadership this year that will carry them. That’s not common, but Avon Lake’s juniors played a big part in the success last year, too. Now those guys are ready to lead in their final season.
“It’s not common that you graduate as many guys as we did and still have five seniors coming back,” Avon Lake senior Derek McCrum said. “We learned a ton from the guys last year. Matthew Stuewe, Collin Stewart led us really well and I think we can carry that into this season.”
McCrum, Peyton Lerch and Tyler Birk will guide the young players following them. Lerch started as a junior and averaged 10.5 points per game. He was a solid core piece. Birk and McCrum came off the bench and combined for 5.5 points per game a year ago. Those two will be producing more with expanded roles this year.
The rest of the 14-player roster has no varsity experience, including the two other starters. The only way to get the other guys acclimated to varsity basketball is to play. That’s the plan for this Avon Lake team. Until the younger players get their feet under them, the Shoremen are going to rely on those three seniors, Smith said.
The veterans got a good chunk of playing time last year, but it’ll be different now as the leaders of this squad. The work has been put in and they expect to have another good season.
“We’re putting it on ourselves, especially to make sure all the underclassmen that are new to the varsity level are up to speed,” Birk said. “… It’s helpful that we know the level of focus and preparation it takes to be able to go into every game knowing that every win is going to matter. Getting that experience last year will definitely be able to help our team.”
Avon Lake has senior leadership, but other factors in are place thus far to contribute to success. The Shoremen are a big team — they have four starters standing at 6-2 or taller. Lerch and McCrum are both 6-2, with new starters Cam Moore and Andrew Lamb standing at 6-3 and 6-4.
The Shoremen’s style of play also makes a difference. Even if the offense takes time to come together, their defense will travel. They will guard and turn steals into baskets on the other end.
“All of our scrimmages, our coach has made a big point that we’ve been really good at passing the ball,” Lerch said. “That’s going to make a huge impact towards us winning. I think we’re very fast and athletic, so if we just take that to our advantage, then we’ll be good.”
Smith talked about the program’s standard, but there’s also a culture in place within that. Baskets might not come as easy this year losing prolific players from last season, but Avon Lake has bought in to playing its style of basketball. Picked as favorites or not, the Shoremen are looking to make another statement.